Ever since the “Partygate” scandal rocked Boris Johnson’s premiership at the end of last year, the British Prime Minister has repeatedly dodged questions about his future by asserting that what the public wants is for politicians to get on with running the country, not obsess over events that took place nearly two years ago.
Later this week, Johnson will have some indication of whether or not that claim is right. On Thursday, people across England, Scotland and Wales will vote in local elections, the closest thing to a mid-term that Johnson has faced since taking office in 2019.
The vote takes place as Johnson and his governing Conservatives are surrounded by scandals and crises so bad that members of his own party have publicly called for his resignation. Indeed, the most pressing of these scandals, which saw Johnson fined by police for breaching his own Covid rules during the 2020 lockdown, might have led to his ousting from office under normal circumstances.
And yet, Johnson has time and again proved himself to be unique among politicians and able to roll with every punch thrown at him. What’s unknown right now is if any of those punches, while failing to knock the PM out, have caused sufficient damage that Johnson is still ultimately doomed.
A short look at the wreckage currently surrounding Johnson would be enough to make most chuck the towel in.
The numerous incidents involved in the Partygate scandal, for which Johnson has already been found guilty of breaking the law, are still being investigated by the police. More fines have been issued to people who worked with the PM inside Downing Street and it’s entirely possible that Johnson could be fined again.
Once the police have finished, Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, will publish her full report into the scandal, which is likely to be highly critical of Johnson, if the parts already published are anything to go by.
Also haunting Johnson is the prospect that he will be found to have deliberately misled parliament when, in response to allegations of lockdown-breaching gatherings in Downing Street, he told lawmakers that rules were followed at all times. According to the ministerial code, such an eventuality would normally lead to a resignation.
The sense of crisis surrounding Johnson’s premiership goes well beyond Partygate.
Last week, his party was accused of having a serious misogyny problem, after one of his backbenchers anonymously claimed to the Mail on Sunday newspaper that Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the opposition Labour Party, attempted to distract Johnson in the House of Commons by crossing and uncrossing her legs, similar to Sharon Stone’s character in the movie “Basic Instinct.”
Rayner described the claims as “vile lies” and tweeted that “Boris Johnson’s cheerleaders have resorted to spreading desperate, perverted smears in their doomed attempts to save his skin.” Johnson himself criticized the Mail’s story as “appalling, misogynist tripe” and said he would unleash the “terrors of the earth” on the source if they were found.
And on Saturday, another lawmaker from Johnson’s party, Neil Parish, said he would resign after admitting to watching pornography multiple times in the House of Commons.
Meanwhile, 56 members of parliament are currently under investigation for sexual misconduct, with members of Johnson’s cabinet believed by government insiders to be on that list.
On top of that, a cost-of-living crisis linked to Brexit
Add to all of this a cost-of-living crisis linked to Brexit and Johnson’s fate going into these elections looks bleak. Inflation in the UK is at a 30-year high, and the Prime Minister’s critics have accused him of having no serious answers to the crisis.
When asked in an interview Tuesday to give advice to an elderly widow whose energy bills had risen so much that she had been forced to ride the bus around all day to stay warm, Johnson began his response by taking credit for introducing free bus passes when he was the mayor of London.
While the precariousness of his situation might not be obvious day-to-day, it was underscored brutally earlier this month when he had to pull an amendment to a motion that would permit a parliamentary investigation into Partygate because, despite its parliamentary majority of 75, the government was not sufficiently confident that enough MPs would back the PM.
“Put simply, the whips didn’t know they didn’t have the votes to support the PM,” says one senior Conservative MP. “If MPs are not talking to the whips, then you are in serious trouble.”
Despite all this, it’s still uncertain that Johnson will have to resign or be sacked – and some think it’s entirely possible that he will fight the next general election in 2024.
How can this be the case with so much immediate peril?
First, the local elections might not be as catastrophic as many around Johnson fear. “Local elections ask voters a different set of questions to national elections,” explains Chris Curtis, head of political polling at Opinium Research.
“People might vote for a local councillor who they know, like and see as being a million miles from Westminster. That is harder for MPs who have to defend the Prime Minister in parliament,” he adds.
Essentially, the results of these elections might not reflect the broad voter dissatisfaction with Johnson, which is present in national polling virtually every week. In other words, they might not be the smoking gun that MPs who want to get rid of Johnson need to finally make their move.
“Lots of us are very angry, but we know getting rid of another PM is not a great look. We need a very good reason to justify it to the public and I just don’t think these election results will be it,” says one former Conservative cabinet minister.
There is also a growing sense among Conservative MPs that even the Gray report into Partygate might not be enough to force Johnson from office, as the longer the story rumbles on, the less MPs think the public cares.
For Johnson’s fiercest critics, this leaves them in a worst-of-all-worlds scenario: a chaotic government they cannot dislodge just as the cost-of-living crisis hits millions of British people.
And while the cost of living crisis is driven by multiple factors, including pandemic recovery and the war in Ukraine, there is an element to it that is unique to the UK: Brexit.
A report last week by UK in a Changing Europe, an independent research organization, estimated that since the UK left the European Union’s single market and customs union in January 2021, food prices have risen 6%. If this trend continues, it is could be particularly damaging for Johnson, the man who led the campaign to leave the EU.
“People who say cost of living has nothing to do with Brexit are in denial,” says Jonathan Portes, professor of economics and King’s College London. “In the long run, it’s reducing imports and exports and that is likely to make us somewhat poorer than we otherwise would have been.”
There is little doubt that the next general election will be determined by how the incumbent government, led by Johnson or not, handles this cost-of-living crisis.
For many Conservative MPs, that is causing sleepless nights. Many simply don’t think Johnson is capable of handling the challenges currently facing the UK and privately hope the Gray report has something bad enough that they can finally get rid of him, ideally by September.
Until that happens, Johnson remains in power but with his authority severely damaged. The public, surveys say, largely believes he is untrustworthy, while his own backbenchers cannot be relied upon to support him.
Those who want him gone hope that he will resign, although, to date, Johnson has ruled this out. All of which means that the Conservative party finds itself in the unenviable position of not being strong enough to sack its leader, who is in turn not strong enough to command loyalty from his MPs.
Johnson could still turn it all around, but the longer this goes on, the more the stench of inevitable death around him and his government will fester, making the prospect of fighting the next election unenviable even for those with the strongest of stomachs.